The sketch Ian Brunskill provides of the Enlightenment-era author Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) suggests that his was a real-life version of this tragic arc. Brunskill’s review of a collection of Kleist’s works is a fascinating account of that story. As a measure of how extraordinary Kleist’s life was, he notes that scholars have long been confounded by Kleist’s short life and career, and the violence of his death.
A century ago, a distinguished Austrian scholar observed that Heinrich von Kleist was "the most difficult problem in literary history" and that the more we learned about him, the more of a problem he became. That state of affairs has not changed.While Brunskill and others see Kleist’s work and life as a “difficult problem,” we shall see that it is not such a mystery after all. Ayn Rand held that ideas drive the course of human history, and also that ideas—those both explicitly and implicitly held—guide individual men’s lives. What happens when one of the most profound and fundamental philosophical battles in history is waged not only in the halls of academia, but in the mind of one young man?
Kleist's short and mostly unhappy life was a muddle of contradictions. His small dramatic oeuvre ranges disconcertingly wide, from comedy of manners to domestic tragedy, from social realism to gothic fantasy. His prose, of which Peter Wortsman has here collected and translated a welcome new selection, is stranger and more unsettling still. Romantics, Expressionists and Existentialists have all claimed him as an inspiration. Kafka called him a "blood-brother." But Kleist belongs to no literary school and remains, as Thomas Mann observed, in a class uniquely his own. Outside the German-speaking lands, he is all too little read.
Kleist’s Cultural and Philosophical MilieuKleist grew up during the zenith of the Enlightenment, the era when man was throwing off the shackles of mysticism and tyranny and exploring what reason and freedom could provide for this life on earth. To his great misfortune, however, he also lived in the time and region that would become the seat of the Counter-Enlightenment. As philosopher Stephen Hicks writes in Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (pp. 24-27):
The era from 1780 to 1815 is one of the defining periods of the modern era. During those thirty-five years, Anglo-American culture and German culture split decisively from each other, one following a broadly Enlightenment program, the other a Counter-Enlightenment one.While the French experimented with English Enlightenment thought before succumbing to Rousseau and the terror of the French Revolution, “[m]any Germans, however, had been suspicious of the Enlightenment long before the French Revolution. . . most were deeply troubled by its implications for religion, morality, and politics.” Their response was growing hostility to the Enlightenment. This was the culture in which Kleist grew up.
Brunskill echoes this idea in his review as it played out for Kleist himself. Brunskill briefly describes Kleist’s promise and the change that came over him after exposure to the first and greatest of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers:
Kleist in his youth had espoused with enthusiasm all the optimism of the Enlightenment. Reason would conquer all; happiness would come with experience and understanding. In March 1801, however, by his own account, he seems to have encountered the thought of Immanuel Kant (it is not clear what precisely he read), and his world fell apart. By testing the nature and limits of human knowledge, Kant had sought primarily to establish the possibility of a meaningful metaphysics. To Kleist, however, it was much grimmer than that: Kant had shown, he believed, that empirical knowledge was unreliable, reason illusory, truth unattainable and life quite meaningless. "My sole and highest goal has vanished," he wrote. "Now I have none."This encounter with Kant’s ideas, and the terrible transformation it caused in Kleist, has been termed his “Kant-Krise” or “Kant Crisis.” This was the internal clash of Enlightenment thought and its antithesis, and Kleist’s attempt to make sense of his world again. Significantly, most modern thinkers believe Kleist’s interpretation of Kant is severely mistaken, at best. Recall that the accepted wisdom is that Kant was an Enlightenment thinker and defender of reason. Brunskill says that Kleist’s reading of Kant “was an extreme overreaction, not to mention a misreading of Kant's philosophy, but Kleist was like that.”
“[I]f, in Kleist's hysterical misconception of Kant's critical philosophy, truth is no longer even theoretically possible, then a literature arising out of this conclusion would point in both directions toward a void,” is one of the ways author Robert Norton describes the situation, in a review of James Phillips’ The Equivocation of Reason: Kleist Reading Kant for the University of Notre Dame’s Philosophical Reviews. “For Phillips, Kleist's works enact his realization that understanding in any conventional meaning of the word is no longer possible.”
Brunskill and Norton hold that Kleist got Kant wrong, but they both agree that the impact of Kleist’s understanding had a profound impact on his work, and imply that it ultimately led to his destruction. As Brunskill says:
Through it all [his troubles, trials, and adventures] Kleist wrote, though to no very wide acclaim: essays, anecdotes, shorts stories, plays. Then, on Nov. 21, 1811, at around four in the afternoon, on a small hill by the shore of the Wannsee lake just outside Berlin, having first shot dead a woman called Henrietta Vogel, who was the wife of an acquaintance and who in the subsequent autopsy would be found to have been suffering from incurable cancer, he placed a pistol in his mouth and killed himself. He was 34.Kleist was young, bright, and full of promise, and brimming with Enlightenment optimism. In reading the works of Immanuel Kant, Kleist believed that the foundation of his worldview had evaporated in a cloud of internally consistent and impossible to refute arguments, “that empirical knowledge was unreliable, reason illusory, truth unattainable,” and to Kleist, the result was that he saw life as being “quite meaningless.”
That Kleist’s interpretation had a profoundly negative impact on his mind is not at issue, as we have his own words to confirm it. But was his interpretation correct? Was this a tragic misreading of Kant, or did he grasp earlier than most the logical implications of Kant’s work, and the tragedy was that he couldn’t think his way out of it?
Kleist as Prophet of Postmodernism?Kleist thought that Kant’s ideas had cast him adrift in an unknowable sea, slashing his moorings to an objective reality he used to think it was possible to know, and this apparently led to his ultimate self-destruction; it seems he simply could not live in that new unknowable world. Though as mentioned before, Kant is generally seen to be a part of the Enlightenment, not counter to it, and as a defender of reason. Here again we must turn to Stephen Hicks and his excellent book, Explaining Postmodernism, where he says, (p. 28)
Kant is sometimes considered to be an advocate of reason. Kant was in favor of science, it is argued. He emphasized the importance of rational consistency in ethics. He posited regulative principles of reason to guide our thinking, even our thinking about religion. . . Thus, the argument runs, Kant should be placed in the pantheon of Enlightenment greats. That is a mistake.As Hicks later notes, this is both a crucial and controversial interpretation. It is outside the scope of this essay to delve more deeply into the arguments in favor of this position, so instead I will simply include one more passage from Chapter 2 on Kant and the Counter-Enlightenment and suggest that you read it and judge for yourself.
The fundamental question of reason is its relationship to reality. Is reason capable of knowing reality—or is it not?. . . This is the question that divides philosophers into pro- and anti-reason camps, this is the question that divides the rational gnostics and the skeptics, and this was Kant’s question in his Critique of Pure Reason.
Kant was crystal clear about his answer. Reality—real, noumenal reality—is forever closed off to reason, and reason is limited to awareness and understanding of its own subjective products.
In the history of philosophy, Kant marks a fundamental shift from objectivity as the standard to subjectivity as the standard.Based on the limited evidence presented, it seems that Kleist grasped these implications quickly and deeply, and it shook him to the core. "My sole and highest goal has vanished. Now I have none."
Wait a minute, a defender of Kant may reply. Kant was hardly opposed to reason. After all, he favored rational consistency and he believed in universal principles. So what is anti-reason about that? The answer is that more fundamental to reason than consistency and universality is a connection to reality. Any thinker who concludes that in principle reason cannot know reality is not fundamentally an advocate of reason. That Kant was in favor of consistency and universality is of derivative and ultimately inconsequential significance. Consistency with no connection to reality is a game based on subjective rules. If the rules of the game have nothing to do with reality, then why should everyone play by the same rules? These were precisely the implications the postmodernists were to draw eventually.
Kant the All-DestroyerUntethered from reality as he thought he was, Kleist’s life became a mostly unhappy “muddle of contradictions,” and of his writings Brunskill says:
The universe inhabited by the characters in his works is bleak and bizarre. . . In his essay "On the Theater of Marionettes," an ironic, fictionalized dialogue, Kleist considers Man's fall from Eden and asks whether human self-consciousness is less a blessing than a curse. The characters in his works, particularly in his extraordinary short stories, try to make sense of a senseless world, to behave rationally in the face of madness, to act with purpose while at the mercy of cruel chance.In Norton’s review of Phillips, we see an evaluation that supports my points, from two thinkers who are nevertheless sympathetic to Kant’s ideas (prior to the passage below, Norton writes, “Phillips has many highly original and thought-provoking takes on ostensibly familiar Kantian topics.”):
. . .Fate, for the lovers in "The Earthquake in Chile," is utterly malign. Religious faith, for the iconoclasts in "Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music," amounts to murderous bigotry. Political principle, amid the racial strife of the Haitian revolution in "The Betrothal in Santo Domingo," is a cloak for primal violence. Recounting these horrors, Kleist does not moralize or philosophize. He does not even try to explain.
The consequence, as Phillips describes it, is a terrible erosion of the real world, the realm of positivity, into complete relativity, or contingency. . . In this way, Phillips wants to show that the terror Kleist experienced when confronted by the critical philosophy was entirely warranted: Kant's elevation of Reason necessarily entailed the derogation of the world. This is also where the two writers meet, or as Phillips puts it: "Kant and Kleist together pursue a work of destruction". But whereas Kant destroys the world for the sake of philosophy, Kleist takes the fragmented pieces that no longer cohere as the signs of a kind of negative truth. For Kleist, error becomes the supreme, indeed sole principle.Hicks explains the philosophical implications of what Kant did (p. 42):
Kant’s contemporary Moses Mendelssohn was thus prescient in identifying Kant as “the all-destroyer.” Kant did not take all of the steps down to postmodernism, but he did take the decisive one. Of the five major features of Enlightenment reason—objectivity, competence, autonomy, universality, and being an individual faculty—Kant rejects objectivity. Once reason is so severed from reality, the rest is details—details that are worked out over the next two centuries. By the time we get to the postmodernist account, reason is seen not only as subjective, but also as incompetent, highly contingent, relative, and collective. Between Kant and the postmodernists comes the successive abandonment of the rest of reason’s features.Could this philosophical path to postmodernism give us insight into the inner turmoil experienced by Kleist? Based on his fiction as described by Brunskill, it appears that Kleist explored most of the key philosophical themes comprising the abandonment of reason in pursuit of postmodernism.
And ultimately, in a bizarre episode, he shot a woman and then himself, ending his brief life. To me, this reads like the eulogy of a man of reason who became unhinged by the adoption of tragically contradictory premises. In a way, it reminds me a real-life variation on the internal philosophical and psychological struggles of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and the self-destruction of virtuous promise when exposed to the horror of malevolent ideas, as exemplified by Ayn Rand’s character of Cheryl Taggart in Atlas Shrugged.
The impact of ideas reverberates throughout history, but also in the minds of individual men. Good ideas, objectivity, reason, further men’s lives and allow them to reach new heights of creativity and productivity. Destructive ideas have the opposite effect. In most men, the good and bad ideas mix in an unexamined mishmash, and the benevolence of others and the security of modern industrial society allow them to evade the consequences while carrying on their lives. But as shown by the following passage from Nietzsche, some men are deeper and more profound thinkers than that, and the ideas they hold have more of an impact, for good or for worse.
The . . . danger is to despair of truth. This danger confronts every thinker who begins from Kant's philosophy, assuming that he is a vigorous and whole human being in his suffering and aspiration and not merely a clacking thinking- or calculating-machine.... As soon as Kant would begin to exert a popular influence, we should find it reflected in the form of a gnawing and crumbling scepticism and relativism; and only among the most active and noble spirits, who have never been able to endure doubt, you would find in its place that upheaval and despair of all truth which Heinrich von Kleist, for example, experienced as an effect of Kant's philosophy. "Not long ago," he once writes in his moving manner, "I became acquainted with Kant's philosophy; and now I must tell you of a thought in it, inasmuch as I cannot fear that it will upset you as profoundly and painfully as me. We cannot decide whether that which we call truth is really truth or whether it merely appears that way to us. If the latter is right, then the truth we gather here comes to nothing after our death; and every aspiration to acquire a possession which will follow us even into the grave is futile. If the point of this idea does not penetrate your heart, do not smile at another human being who feels wounded by it in his holiest depths. My only, my highest aim has sunk, and I have none left."The end of Nietzsche’s quotation of Kleist, “My only, my highest aim has sunk, and I have none left,” appears to be a slightly different translation of the quote used by Brunskill, and obliquely referred to by Phillips. The absence in their accounts of the of crucial context of Kleist’s words, and of Nietzsche’s agreement and support, is now glaring. Nietzsche said, in effect, “No wonder the poor boy self-destructed.”
As dramatic and tragic as Kleist’s life and death are, it is instructive to move back for a moment from the individual to the historical, and note that the destruction of Kleist by the ideas of Kant is a sad and sadly accurate allegory on the state of Western civilization. “Once reason is so severed from reality, the rest is details,” whether it is in the mind of one poor man, or the course of an entire culture.
The state of our culture now bears striking similarities to the “muddle of contradictions” in Kleist’s life as the last vestiges of Enlightenment thought in America tear themselves apart at the seams. We are living Kleist’s life, writ large across the tableau of Western civilization.
Kleist was unable to resolve the contradictions between Kant’s philosophy and his own love of reason and the world—or worse, he accepted Kant’s ideas wholly—and it destroyed him. Fortunately for us, the philosophical answer that was unavailable to Kleist is ours for the taking. Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism re-engages and expands the battle for reason, bringing it back to its proper place as the faculty for knowing objective reality. It is idle speculation to wonder if such ideas could have saved Kleist—though my guess is that they certainly could have—but it is clear that if our culture is to be reclaimed and reinvigorated with reason, Rand’s ideas will be the key to the salvation that never came for Kleist.